All your backyard chicken questions answered
Have you ever fantasized about waltzing into your yard to collect delicate brown eggs with the sun shining on your face and the wind at your back? Maybe the following Q&A with Philip regarding his backyard chickens will help you make that delicious dream a reality.
Philip, our neighbor messaged me on Facebook in July simply asking if we’d like a cascade hop plant. Since he and Dan share the hobby of home brewing, we sort of made a trade. He gave us a perky little hop plant and we gave him three of Dan’s most recent brews, a peach mead, a Belgian trippel, and a coffee stout. Then early this month he messaged me again offering one dozen lovely eggs from their backyard chickens.
We don’t know Philip, Brianna and their baby daughter Helen all that well yet, but we’ve already been blessed by their kind generosity. They live close enough I can bike over there in less than 10 minutes. And they live in a cool old farm house, kind of like ours, with a large yard they’re putting to good use with backyard chickens and a garden.
Brianna is actually the twin sister of my good friend Brittany. We worked together at the South Bend Tribune and share some serious foodie friendship, often walking the South Bend Farmers Market together. And I’m really hoping I can persuade her to write a guest blog post here someday.
For the eggs, I traded some old watermelon that was practically alcoholic for the chickens too munch on. Another day I hopped on my bike to return the egg carton and take over some spikey turnip greens, thick kale stems and other tidbits for the little chickies. On that trip I had the opportunity to say a hearty “hello” to the chickens.
I’m generally impressed that they keep a little herd of chickens in their backyard. And I’m even more impressed that they took on this endeavor with a new baby. My mom has a flock of happy chickens, and someday Dan and I would love to have chickens, so it’s really good to hear Philip make it sound pretty simple.
Q: Why do you have chickens?
A: Raising some of our own food makes us a little more self-sufficient and gives us control over the quality of what we eat. We already had a garden and a few fruit trees, but we wanted a good source of protein. When I was young, my family had chickens, and I know they are low-maintenance.
Pastured chickens produce eggs with significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and certain vitamins than typical commercial eggs. I can’t be sure I’m getting this kind of nutrition even from eggs labeled “free range,” since the USDA permits a very broad interpretation of the term.
Q: When did you get them? And what special care did they require at first?
A: We got our chickens in April when they were three days old. At that age they are around the size of chicken nuggets and about as smart. I had to teach them where their waterer was by dunking their little heads in it.
For the first nine weeks I kept them under a heat lamp in a brooder box in my attic. Keeping the temperature just right was a challenge, but the chicks survived all the accidental extremes to which they were subjected. I was relieved when they got their grown-up feathers and were ready for life outside.
Q: Where do you house your chickens? What kind of life do they lead?
A: My four hens live in a custom 2014 two-story chicken tractor. It’s sort of a small (3’x4’x4′) coop on wheels. A chicken-sized door opens on a little sky bridge that connects them to an enclosed run. The run is 6’x4′ and entirely covered in steel hardware cloth to protect them from predators.
The chickens lay eggs in the morning in a secluded nest box. Around noon I give them food and water, and they squawk loudly until I open the door to the run. Then they all try to get out at once. They race around and squabble over choice weeds and food scraps, dig for bugs, and voice their general excitement. At sunset they return to the coop and perch in a row on their roosting bar while making little clucking noises.
Q: How many eggs do they typically produce?
A: Each hen lays an egg almost every day. At 17.5 weeks they laid their first eggs (which were odd sizes, shapes, and colors), but it took them a couple weeks to start laying daily. They may produce less in the winter, but this breed (Golden Comet) is supposed to be pretty good about that.
A: Generic Dumor Layer feed goes in their feeder, but I try to give them fresh pasture (and bug-hunting grounds) and plenty of produce scraps. Right now I spend around $7 per month on feed.
Q: Are there any special rules governing chicken keeping where you live?
A: If we lived across the street we would be under city regulations, but this is county land. The only rule here is that permanent chicken-housing structures must be fifty feet from the property line. I’m not sure my chicken tractor counts.
Q: How much care do they require?
A: I spend five minutes twice a day giving them food and water and collecting eggs. I set up an external feeding and watering system and have external access to the nest boxes, so I rarely have to open the coop’s people doors. I open the chicken door at noon and close it after they turn in for the evening.
Once or twice a week I move the coop and the run to fresh pasture. This takes about ten minutes, since I have to disconnect the coop and run and move them separately.
The only time-consuming job is cleaning the coop every few weeks. I still haven’t found a clever way to make that job easy or fun.
Q: What has been the best and worst experiences of keeping backyard chickens?
A: Getting them to lay eggs in their nest boxes was frustrating. At first they would lay eggs on the floor of the coop or by the feeder and waterer. Once I even found an egg that had been trampled and crushed. The magic formula for my flock was using pine shavings as bedding in the nest boxes and sand in the rest of the coop. That seems to have solved the problem completely.
One of the best experiences was watching the hens explore the outdoors the day after I had finished building the run. They were thoroughly curious and equally terrified. They would take a few steps out of the coop and then rush back inside, clucking furiously.
Of course, finding the first egg was a very memorable experience.
Q: What do you wish you had known before committing to chickens?
A: All opinions on the internet should be taken with a grain of salt. If people say chickens can be raised a certain way they are almost certainly right. If people say chickens must be raised a certain way they are almost certainly wrong.
Q: Any funny chicken stories?
A: One morning when the chicks were a few weeks old, I found one perched on top of the brooder. After escaping it had apparently decided not to “fly the coop.” It made me chase it in circles for a few minutes before I could persuade it to go back in its brooder. (Incidentally, a good way to catch a chicken is to grab its legs and then carry it upside-down. It gets too confused to try to escape.)
I transferred the chickens to the coop before I had added the wheel carriage. That was an interesting life decision. They protested loudly as I propped up the coop, hammered nails, and used power tools on their new home.
The cat was extremely curious about the new arrivals and tried to stalk them when it thought we weren’t looking. Baby chicks are perpetual motion machines, but they would freeze in place the moment they saw the cat eying them. A couple months later they were so large and loud that the cat gave them a wide berth.
NOTE: Philip is happy to answer any other pressing backyard chicken-keeping questions you might have.